Dangerous times for Fulham
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.
For the first time in a long time, Fulham's chances of retaining the Premier League status that has been theirs for nine long years look to be in jeopardy. With Mark Hughes in charge you can guarantee the team will be resilient, but their unimpressive home form is a real concern. Fulham's hopes of survival this season will hinge on how they perform at Craven Cottage - a ground that holds fond memories for myself.
There is a very nice buzz around Fulham and they are a club that are certainly worthy of a place amongst the elite, but Hughes has had a quiet start in West London and Roy Hodgson has been a tough act to follow. Given they are 17th, and only out of the drop zone on goal difference, the team have a real task on their hands to avoid relegation this season. With clubs like Blackpool exceeding expectations, and with West Brom and Newcastle on course to retaining their place in the top flight, it looks as though the three promoted teams will be staying up, meaning three more established clubs could be in danger. Fulham are one of those clubs.
Even under Roy Hodgson, Fulham struggled on their travels - illustrated by the fact they have not won an away game since the opening day of the 2009-10 season - but Craven Cottage had become a fortress under the current Liverpool manager. That has not been the case of late. Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele have both been missing for periods due to injury, while Andy Johnson has only just returned from a lengthy lay-off, so it is no mystery where their problems lie. At home your goalscorers convert half-chances into goals, like Zamora did last year. At a club like Fulham, one player can be like gold dust, and they have sorely missed Zamora.
Clint Dempsey has helped to fill the void with five goals this season and has demonstrated with his consistently impressive performances that he is capable of playing for a club like Saturday's opponents, Liverpool, who have been linked with him in recent weeks. Dempsey is excellent in the air and he epitomises an American footballer at present. They are very impressive athletes who never lack for effort, and there are very rarely any issues with their temperament. Dempsey could certainly play at a higher level and he has become Fulham's key player now, a little bit like Tim Cahill has at Everton. They are both midfielders who have become driving forces in attack.
Fulham would do well to reinforce in January, and will have to hope that Mohamed Al Fayed opens his chequebook once again, as he has done so many times in the past. He has been a tremendous chairman for the club. Despite the perspective that some people had of him initially, he has backed his managers consistently and in January he may finance one new signing, maybe a forward who can contribute eight or ten goals before the end of the season. That could be the difference between relegation and survival for a club that have become accustomed to an elite status since reaching the top flight in 2001.
I was fortunate enough to play a role in Fulham's ascent through the divisions following Mr Fayed's purchase of the club, and won promotion to the second tier in 1999 before moving on to become full-time England manager. Prior to the turn of the decade, we had players like Peter Beardsley and Chris Coleman playing in the third tier and gracing Craven Cottage thanks to Mr Fayed's extensive investment. Mark Hughes appears to be working under different conditions now, and it is unclear how much financial support Mr Fayed is putting into the club at present, and whether the sale of Harrods will have an impact.
You could write a book full of anecdotes about Mr Fayed's reign. In 1999, for example, we had none other than Michael Jackson visiting the Cottage. I took the King of Pop into the players' lounge, and down a very small corridor that was decorated with photos of Fulham's squad in the 1920s. All the men pictured were donning old-fashioned hats and he was fascinated, not with the game that day, but with these dusty old pictures chronicling the distant past of Fulham Football Club. "Look at the hats," he said. "They are the same as my hat!" That's the kind of unexpected event that would happen during those years under Mr Fayed.
He is certainly a character. There have been lots of things thrown at him over the past 20 or 30 years, but he has been a great friend and chairman of Fulham Football Club. Players and managers have come and gone but he has kept moving with the times and I hope for his sake, as much as the Fulham supporters' sake, that they stay up because he deserves to be in the Premier League. I want to see them stay up. I think it is going to be a fight but I think they will just do it.